The decline of China, explained by population boom

The Fall and Rise of China, a course by Richard Baum (late professor at UCLA), asks how it was possible for an empire that had been so successful for 1,000 years to fall apart in about 100 years. The decline of China relative to Europe was anything but predictable, in his view, and the real question is why China didn’t continue to lead the world economy.

The professor’s thesis is that population growth doomed China. The Manchus improved the control of floodwater from China’s major rivers, thus enabling more stability in agriculture. Instead of an improved standard of living, however, this lead to a huge increase in what had been a stable population size, from about 125 million to 450 million over 200 years (1700 to 1900). Agricultural productivity per acre did not improve significantly and the cultivated land per person fell, thus reducing both the standard of living for the typical citizen and tax revenues for the government (people at a Malthusian level of subsistence can’t pay tax).

(The doom was accelerated to some extent, according to Professor Baum, by the corrupt and incompetent Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China for 47 years and obstructed efforts to modernize the military (partly by stealing money that had been appropriated for that purpose). Without her, China might have had a chance to go more in the Japanese direction.)

I’m not sure that the “overpopulation” answer is correct, but the question seems like the right one to ask. How did a country that was so far ahead of the rest of the world suddenly (when viewed through the lens of history) collapse?

Venezuela certainly didn’t thrive once its oil wealth was divided by a larger population. Chart from the World Bank:

Venezuela was producing roughly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2010 at about $80 per barrel. That would have been $36,000/year in walking-around revenue for a family of 4 if total revenue were divided by the 1960 population of 8 million. Divided by 28 million, though, and revenue per family was down to $10,000 (and don’t forget that Venezuelans had to take care of the Big Guy and his family before oil revenue could be distributed more widely).

Are there lessons for the U.S.? As the U.S. population has grown (10 million in 1820, 180 million in 1960, 333 million today), Americans have gotten fatter, not thinner. We’re not running out of food like the Chinese did. On the other hand, folks who show up in the U.S. expect an endowment of land/housing. The standard of living to which Americans believe themselves entitled is now, absent taxpayer-funded subsidies, out of reach of roughly half of the people who live in the U.S. and the situation gets worse every day (see “Hundreds of Haitians arrive in Massachusetts from southern border lacking housing, health care” (Boston Globe, 10/10/2021), for example: “Advocates scramble to find homes and help for the new arrivals.” (if every Massachusetts homeowner with an “immigrants welcome” lawn sign and a spare room would host just one Haitian, a substantial fraction of the 1.1 million Haitians in the U.S. could be accommodated in just this one righteous state!).)

The NYT, 8/10/2021 says the situation is dire, but Biden’s central planners have a plan to fix this and we just need “a once-in-a-generation effort”. Harvard agrees that Biden, whose name occurs 6 times in this report, will make all of our housing dreams come true. The NYT article cites Japan favorably. Rents in Tokyo are no higher than they were 20 years ago (it looks as though the indices are adjusted for inflation because San Francisco rent is up only 150 percent and New York up only 100 percent). Not mentioned is that Japan’s population, over the last 20 years, is essentially flat (127 million down to 126 million). You shouldn’t need the world’s finest central planners to manage housing for a constant-sized population.

The Chinese, according to the professor, also suffered from insularity. They mostly stopped traveling to foreign countries (compare to our border-crossing restrictions since February 2020). They didn’t keep up with the Industrial Revolution (compare to our current dependence on Asia to fabricate semiconductors). Due to Internet, container ships, and air freight, however, it is tough to imagine the U.S. ever being truly disconnected from innovation centers around the world.

So history may not repeat itself nor even rhyme, but it is still an interesting question to ponder. Why were Michelle Faraday and Katherine Clerk Maxwell the pioneers in electromagnetism rather than physicists in Beijing? Why was it Mileva Marić who explained the photoelectric effect and figured out that gravity distorts spacetime, rather than someone in Shanghai? Why was it Louise-Hélène de Lesseps who created the Suez Canal rather than the Chinese, who had more than 2000 years of canal experience.

14 thoughts on “The decline of China, explained by population boom

  1. The professor is preoccupied with details. China had a bad time for a while. So did, for examples, Russia and Cambodia. But you know what? All three are still here with their own identities. Each retains its distinctive historic people.

    Now consider Western countries, few of which have been through a trauma anywhere near as bad as the examples I named. Are the “American” or “British” or “German” people still here? This is unclear: the very concept of an “American people” or a “British people”, etc, is now meaningless. If it has any meaning, it is merely “whoever happens to reside within a certain geographical territory” with no shared history, language, religion, culture or anything except geographical proximity.

    Why did the first three countries’ peoples survive while those of Western countries did not? That would be an interesting question for the professor to explore, if he’s willing to risk his career.

    • I wonder if the Manchu dynasty collapsed because of a ballooning bureaucracy and Confucianism. In that light it is funny that in modern China even official CCP sources warn against the bureaucracy (as always, such complaints may be political theater to convince the masses that “something is being done”, but I’m not a China expert):

      “‘Currently every 26 ordinary citizens in China have to support one official, while spending on government cars, reception fees and official training or tours abroad have reached a whopping amount,’ said Ren Yuling, a member of the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top advisory body which is convening its annual full session in Beijing.”

      The West certainly has the bureaucracy problem and a new doctrine that is as rigid as Confucianism.

    • @Lord, it used to be when immigrants, legally or illegally, came to America, they wanted to be American, they wanted to live the American Way of live and were proud o do so. Those days are gone [1]. American is no longer the melting pot that it used to be. American and the western countries have lost their identity.

      At times, when I am in a store, I have no idea that I’m living in American; the casher, the service guys’, etc. do not speak English. Calling customer support, will start with non-English intro.


    • George A.,
      > American and the western countries have lost their identity.

      Well yes, that’s what I said. The professor is interested in the ups-and-downs of a country that is now flourishing. He ignores the extinction of the historic peoples of numerous western countries that are changing beyond recognition and none of them flourishing. His intense examination of the mote while ignoring the more interesting beam is however wise from a career point of view.

      I disagree that the attitude of immigrants is a factor, I think it’s a symptom. Why would they admire a dwindling people who despise themselves? The people recruiting Superman to the cause of doing away with the legacy population are not “fresh off the boat”, they’re probably worth a few billion between them.

  2. Ancient civilizations prospered largely around rivers, e.g., Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Yangtze, Yellow, Tiber, Ganges, Jordan.

    The industrial revolution shifted economic might to seafaring nations with access to raw materials.

    Also do not underestimate the important British food played in motivating trade and innovation.

  3. I think the postmodern decline of the US relative to China was absolutely predictable with its entry into the WTO in December of 2001. Much of the transformation in our economy relative to theirs has occurred as a direct result of it. In just twenty years we have systematically dismantled and reconfigured large sectors of our economy and transferred most of the know-how and manufacturing that we used to do in America – everything from circuit boards for F35 fighter jets to bobble-head dolls and cheap-but-good flashlights and earbuds – to China!

    Every time they get sick, or decide they don’t want to play nice with and send us a little message, they can yank the chain and everyone here jerks sideways a few feet. Now they are tightening the noose on Taiwan, where so many of our semiconductors come from, and if they want, they can flex their muscles in the Pacific and make all our allies there get the shivers and be forced to think the unthinkable – shifting their allegiances and security arrangements to appease and placate the Great Leader. Sometime next month Xi himself is presiding over an official rewrite of Chinese Communist history, so that everyone in China will know how successful they have been in the past 100 years.

    We did this to ourselves! In Boston Harbor there is a wind turbine that was purchased by the MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resources) from the same Chinese company that was convicted by the US Department of Justice for stealing the intellectual property of the largest and most competitive American wind power company. That turbine was partially paid for by the American people through the Obama-Era recovery act, so they used American tax dollars to put an American wind power company out of business! These are the kinds of decisions we have made ON PURPOSE across the board for the past 20 years.

    A few years ago they decided to stop buying our bulk trash. We never anticipated the Chinese would get fed up with processing our junk food boxes and plastic dildos, so we never really took any steps here to process our own garbage. They decided: “You keep it, Yankees! We don’t need your trash any more.”

    Well, with foresight like this, why should we expect that America is sinking under its own weight and totally irresponsible fiscal and immigration policies also? Everybody wanted this! We aimed the torpedo at ourselves and fired it!

    • And it’s probably beyond the scope of this discussion and would put us squarely in what some people would call “tinfoil hat” territory, but we’ve not even begun to discuss the timing and impetus behind the migrant waves traveling across the Mexican Failed State to arrive at our southern border. Nobody wants to discuss the money and interests that are driving that, from George Soros to the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, but they are non-negligible factors, and after all the dust settles, in fifty or a hundred years, some intrepid scholar will do a proper accounting and and people will be able to remember why we had so many millions of people showing up and crossing the Rio Grande. Moving a few million or tens of millions of people from place to place across a subcontinent doesn’t just happen by itself, even if those people are poor, they have to go a long way, so somebody is helping them, and someone is telling them to get moving and keep moving!

      Who is it?

    • Finally, just remember what it was like when we were Flattening the Curve at the beginning of the pandemic.

      “Everyone needs to social distance and wear masks!”
      “But we don’t have enough so the New England Patriots have to charter a plane to China to buy them! And we don’t make them here!”

      “Now we need to test and track and trace everyone!”
      “But we can’t, because we don’t make the reagents for the machines!”

      “Holy jibber jabber, Batman, how are we going to distribute vaccines?”
      “We don’t make enough glass vials and refrigerators to keep them cool!”

      “Wow we’ve got so many people in the hospital dying of end-stage COVID because they’re old and sick and now they have COVID? They need ventilators!”
      “Gosh, we don’t make those, either!”

      And on, and on and on. This despite the fact that we had held all those tabletop pandemic apocalypse scenario exercises under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University over the years!

      “Well, it was nice to see all you smart people, that was a lot of fun, see you next year. But we’re not going to invest in any factories or anything to actually prepare for terrible scenario. You can put your participation in this conference on your resume, though! That’s important because you might want to get to the next rung of the consulting ladder!”

      I could go on about the rest of American society in the past 20 years: the rise of social media and the concomitant idiotification of large swathes of Americans, the belief that we can control an airborne respiratory virus ~0.1 micron in diameter when the best masks we have only filter down to 0.3 microns, the fact that MIT Tech Review can stand up and say that intrusive surveillance will be “small price” people are willing to pay for their BASIC FREEDOMS, and all the rest of it.

      Someone is going to write a great book about it all some day, if anyone’s still around to read it.

    • I have a theory on why the United States seems to encourage as much immigration as possible regardless of who is in the White House: our military is worried we’ll lose a war with China. China has about 723 Million Men (all ages), and the United States has 161 Million (all ages). That’s about 4.5 potential Chinese soldiers for a single US soldier. This means one US soldier would have to cause more that 4.5 casualties before becoming a casualty themselves; if that doesn’t happen, China can simply run the US out of soldiers.

      That’s an extremely high bar to clear, especially with our technological edge shrinking over time.

      Now, perhaps the US will be able to form a coalition of nations against China, but maybe we’re not confident in our ability to do that.

    • US private investment had given up on actual manufacturing. Just look at the percentages of VCs that are still willing to consider true hardware startups (not those “fake” hardware startups that are vehicles for selling software, e.g. the likes of Nest and numerous AR/VR headset companies).
      Manufacturing will NEVER return unless: 1) US kicks China out of WTO or 2) Stops trading with China since all their manufactured goods are heavily subsidized through government’s anti-cycle investments (e.g. heavy government investments during the global semiconductor contracting cycle) or 3) also starts heavily subsidizing domestic semiconductor startups.
      I am very pessimistic for two reasons:
      1. Even if US starts investing into semiconductors, the bulk will be gobbled up by the sclerotic heavyweights rather than the truly innovative smaller companies who can’t afford any lobbyists;
      2. The day is approaching, that manufacturing is so out of fashion in US there will be no people who truly care, let alone trying to stop the trend

  4. Your next reading should be about the Chinese emperors. They’re always portrayed as incompetent in the movies. The incompetent chinese emperors were still lightyears ahead of modern amerikan rulers, yet despite their superior intelligence, they didn’t have a media machine to keep the subjects in line. Things just unraveled when the people were required to close their businesses & wear masks.

  5. Finally, finally: This may be totally off-the-wall, but I really think that people who are looking 20 years ahead realize that another 30, 40, 50, or maybe 60 million people in this society will be displaced from the work by automation. What we are going to have to construct is not a Socialist Society Where Everybody Works but a Socialist Dependency Society where the vast majority of people rely on the government for subsistence and assistance in every aspect of their lives.

    That is why so many people are scrambling to displace White Males in a zero-sum game for positions at the upper intellectual, career, and administrative echelons: because they’re going to be running the show, and this is their last shot to get there, so they’ve got to take a lot of white guys out as quickly as possible. If history has to be rewritten and All Women Must be Believed to get there, that’s just too bad. It’s SOCIAL JUSTICE.

  6. What I learned when I studied this many years ago was that the traditional Confucian culture was incommensurate with modern science, was therefore unable to match western innovation during the industrial revolution and was conquered.

  7. I blame china’s lack of diversity and 3rd world immigration. Don’t they know that diversity is strength, and masses of unskilled immigrants are good for their economy?

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